Karma Comes to the Back Country

Gene from Brooklyn gets a "Trail Karma" award for picking up other people's trash.

Gene from Brooklyn gets a “Trail Karma” award for picking up other people’s trash.

Appalachian Trail, Sunday May 10, 2015 — People are loving our national hiking trails to death.  The Appalachian Trail (AT) alone is estimated to see up to three million visitors per year.

Looking at it one way, that’s enough boots on the ground to bruise the rocks rather than the rocks having the opposite effect on the hikers’ feet.  It’s sort of like hammer vs. nail in role reversal isn’t it?

The collective environmental impact generated by all these people is enormous.  They generate human waste, leave trash, trample vegetation, erode trails and mark their passage in many other unwelcome ways.  There are many means to mitigate this impact, but before we talk about that, here’s the back story.

Most people experience our national parks and forests in what is known as front country.  Front country is civilized, distinguished by infrastructure such as roads, picnic tables, flush toilets, trash cans, concessions and parking.

You know about more about front country than you may think.  That’s where Yogi, Boo boo and Mr. Ranger did their Jellystone schtick.  You get the idea.

The back country is a very different animal.  In contrast to front country, about the only evidence of civilization are the marked hiking trails.  The AT’s primitive shelters and privies are a notable exception. Otherwise it’s supposed to be a “wilderness” experience.  (Not to be confused with designated wilderness areas.  That’s a separate matter.)

Most people never see the back country and hardly realize it’s even there.  The primary reason may be that a lot of muscle power is usually required to get into the back country.  In other words, you have to sweat.

Been to the mall lately?  Observations suggest that fewer and fewer Americans are up for back country excursions. Supersize soft drinks aside, nevertheless there’s no shortage of back country hikers.

The problem comes when people show up in the back country and don’t know how to limit their impact.  Within my experience, they fall into two primary groups.

One group fancies themselves as romantic throwbacks applying their survival skills and living off the land in ways promoted by Jack London, the Boy Scout Handbooks prior to the 1970s, or the Bear Grylls TV series today.

If everyone behaved this way in the back country, it wouldn’t be long before they’d turn paradise into a denuded moonscape.  When you spy someone with a axe, hatchet, machete or (the very heavy) Bear Grylls brand gear on a national hiking trail, you might be looking at one of these folks.

Machete damage.  Green trees don't burn by the way.

Machete damage. Green wood doesn’t burn by the way.

The other group is simply clueless.  Finding no back country trash cans, they just drop their garbage where they stand because they don’t come prepared to carry it out.  They befoul water sources with human waste.  They trample vegetation.  Overall, their practices put the back country environment at risk.

Ignorant people leave their trash in fire pits.  It doesn't burn completely.

Ignorant people leave their trash in fire pits. It doesn’t burn completely.

Unburnt trash.

Unburnt trash.

 When the backpacking craze developed as boomers came of age in the late 1960s, it threatened to overwhelm the environment.  Minimal impact techniques emerged as ways to mitigate the damage generated by the hiking hoards of that era.***

In time, minimum impact morphed into the Leave No Trace ethic.  Leave No Trace is based on seven principles designed to help not only to minimize human impact, but also to maintain the highest quality wilderness experience possible.

Principles were developed for both the front and back country.  Much more at:  https://lnt.org/  These are the back country principles:

  1. Plan Ahead and Prepare: Poorly prepared people, when presented with unexpected situations, often resort to high-impact solutions that degrade the outdoors or put themselves at risk. Proper planning leads to less impact.
  2. Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces: Damage to land occurs when surface vegetation or communities of organisms are trampled beyond repair. The resulting barren area leads to unusable trails, campsites and soil erosion.
  3. Dispose of Waste Properly: Though most trash and litter in the backcountry is not significant in terms of the long term ecological health of an area, it does rank high as a problem in the minds of many backcountry visitors. Trash and litter are primarily social impacts which can greatly detract from the naturalness of an area.[5] Further, backcountry users create body waste and waste water which requires proper disposal according to Leave No Trace.
  4. Leave What You Find: Leave No Trace directs people to minimize site alterations, such as digging tent trenches, hammering nails into trees, permanently clearing an area of rocks or twigs, and removing items.
  5. Minimize Campfire Impacts: Because the naturalness of many areas has been degraded by overuse of fires, Leave No Trace teaches to seek alternatives to fires or use low-impact fires.
  6. Respect Wildlife: Minimizing impact on wildlife and ecosystems.
  7. Be Considerate of Other Visitors: Following hiking etiquette and maintaining quiet allows visitors to go through the wilderness with minimal impact on other users. (Wikipedia)
Leave No Trace plastic tag at bottom right.

Leave No Trace plastic tag at bottom right. (Click on any photo to enlarge.)

Fortunately most hikers are aware of Leave No Trace.  It’s promoted everywhere.  Unfortunately these principles are practiced selectively and conveniently.  In other words, hikers reason their one insignificant transgression won’t have any harmful effect.

The reality is the opposite.  The impact of small Leave No Trace lapses grows exponentially when “everybody” does it.

Now back to the reason for this story.

Too many younger hikers were not following Leave No Trace ethics, yet hikers 18-24 make up the majority of AT thru hikers.  More challenging, the traditional messages and delivery means were not working with this group.

Trail Karma awards and promotional stickers.

Trail Karma awards and promotional stickers.

Enter Trail Karma as a new outreach program: http://www.trailkarma.com.  It is a website targeting younger hikers.  The Trail Karma awards component of this program allows ridgerunners and trail ambassadors to reward good behavior on the trail when it happens in real time.

The Trail Karma Award is a nice AT medallion with a serial number on the back.  Hikers can register the award on the Trail Karma website and even pass it along when another good turn is observed.

The idea is to reinforce the positive.  I thought the two Trail Karma Awards I was able to present during my time in Georgia had a positive impact, both on the hikers who received them and those who observed the presentation.

Yesterday’s mail brought a CARE package of new Trail Karma awards and promotional stickers.  I can’t wait to find good behavior to reward.

***The trails weren’t pristine before the boomers showed up.  In the earlier era, hikers and campers built lean-tos, cut pine bows to make beds, chopped tent stakes every night, disposed of food cans willy nilly and practiced a multitude of other sins.  Their smaller numbers helped limit the damage which was was eventually cleared up.

12 thoughts on “Karma Comes to the Back Country

  1. Great post, Jim. Thank you for what you’re doing on the Trail. Several of us volunteers are getting ready to make some fun Leave No Trace videos for the Appalachian Trail (see website). Every message we can get out there, will help.

  2. I had some trouble with the trail karma link. Had to dink around to get to the site. I don’t know if it’s me or the link.

    That young man in the first photo looked very pleased, as did the younger one on the left in the blue jacket. 🙂

  3. I was out biking yesterday with my daughter on our local greenway and came upon two girls who had such big backpacks I assumed they were thru-hiking (although for the life of me I couldn’t connect thru-hiking with the much civilized greenway), so I struck up a conversation with them. It turns out that they were in training to hike the AT. They are doing it through a for-credit class at Roanoke College. They’ll be going down to Georgia for the first leg of the trip (although they won’t be hiking the whole trail; only about a month’s worth).

    So I thought of you, Jim, as I was chatting with them, and your and my conversation on Friday where you were talking about the multitude of people on the trail. I wondered if you knew that even colleges were now sending students off to hike the trail.

    As part of their coursework, the girls said, they’ll be required to keep daily journals on the trail. But I’ll bet none will be as insightful or entertaining as “A Fork in the Road.”

    • I’ve met a number of students hiking for credit. Also families home schooling their children. Depending on the rigor of the requirements, hiking on or thru hiking could be a valid educational experience, especially in biology, ecology, geology, sociology, or creative writing. Phys ed maybe too?

    • Don, As you know there is an on-going conversation on this topic. One of the challenges lies in the high probability that weekenders who drive in and abuse the huts are not hikers or lovers of nature for that matter. In that sense, they are particularly difficult to reach.

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